Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 8, 2021

The Stray Cats of Homs, by Eva Nour, translated by Agnes Broomé

My first choice of book for #WITMonth (Women in Translation) is a contemporary novel depicting what life is like in Syria where a failed ‘Arab Spring’ uprising against President Bashar al-Assad 10 years ago turned into a full-scale civil war.  The conflict has now caused thousands of deaths and displaced more than half the population. 

The Stray Cats of Homs (De hemlösa katterna i Homs) appears to have been written in a Scandinavian language, but the identity of its author is carefully concealed to protect the identity of her source, a citizen journalist from Syria. The scanty bio in the book tells us only that

Eva Nour is a journalist writing under a pseudonym. She was inspired to write The Stray Cats of Homs, her debut novel, by meeting and falling in love with the real ‘Sami’. Today the couple share a life together in Paris.

Told in a third person narrative from Sami’s point-of-view, the novel begins with Sami’s childhood.  There are the usual games, incidents at school, squabbles with siblings and disagreements with parents — but also a dawning awareness that people have to be careful of state surveillance which is there to prop up an unpopular regime.  People like Sami’s father believe that trouble is best avoided by avoiding troublemakers, but family confidence is shaken when their older son Ali returns from compulsory military service as a changed man.  Sami decides to do what he can to evade conscription, but inevitably, he is caught and forced into uniform.

Trouble comes to a head when Sami’s work as a cartographer finds him ordered to prepare maps to support the regime’s incursion into his home town of Homs.  The rebels they want to kill off are some of Sami’s friends, but he also knows that a previous operation in a nearby town resulted in the massacre of the inhabitants and the destruction of the town.   The violence escalates as Sami finds ways to reconcile his heart and his conscience while trying not to endanger his family and friends.

This is a story of survival, of difficult moral choices and the dehumanising effects of war.  Some of the episodes are harrowing, while others renew faith in human nature.  The novel puts a human face on the images seen in the media, with the clear intent that the fickle public should be reminded that this story is not over yet.

Jennifer at Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large has also reviewed this book. 

PS In the course of writing this review I searched Wikipedia as I often do for an image to use and was astonished to find that (on the day I searched, 8/8/21)  the entry for Homs made almost no mention of the war and had no images of the destruction so vividly shown in the pictures at the back of the novel.  The entry for the Siege of Homs is the same. There are maps and diagrams but nothing that gives any indication of the scale of destruction. Yet a recent article in The Conversation paints a very different picture and so does this article at TRT World.  You only need to do an image search for ‘Homs Syria’  to see a city that looks nothing like the Homs ‘landmarks’ at Wikipedia.  I went exploring in the ‘Talk’ and ‘History’ back pages of both Wikipedia articles and discovered that both have been the subject of propaganda and editing wars but am none the wiser about the extent of the destruction or the postwar reconstruction of the city (or even if the term ‘postwar’ can legitimately be used).

My discovery of this ‘media war’ brought these words more into focus:

Before, he would never have been able to imagine this. The way the rest of the world would never have been able to imagine this, because most people only know about their own lives and one or two generations back. If the world knew this, it wouldn’t let it continue, naturally. (p.289)

Using media to create confusion about what really happened not only inhibits any intervention to bring about a just peace, it’s also in the interests of anyone potentially identified as a war criminal.  (Bashar al-Assad is accused, amongst other things, of using chemical warfare on his own people).

At the same time, (though it pains me to say it), I’m conscious that this novel too — even if all of it is ‘true’ in the sense that it disguises events that did actually happen — could well be propaganda for the rebel side.

Author: Eva Nour
Title: The Stray Cats of Homs (De hemlösa katterna i Homs)
Translated by Agnes Broomé
Publisher: Transworld (Penguin Random House), 2020
ISBN: 9780857526762, pbk., pbk., 377 pages
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Readings via one of the curated collections of translated fiction, $29.99


Responses

  1. Glad to see I’m not the only one who chose extremely non-touristy places for their #WITMonth! That is a very strange and disturbing detail about Homs in Wikipedia though…

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    • Isn’t it though?
      The talk page is very revealing: the page, as is, follows the format for ‘city’ pages: early history from prehistory onwards; geography, climate, landmarks etc and the point was made by someone that if you look at the entry for London, the Blitz doesn’t get mentioned in the Lead Paragraph and indeed there is only one image of bomb damage.
      The rejoinder is that the Blitz was 70 years ago, and that most people looking up Homs are (like me) interested in its civil war history and the current state of the buildings, infrastructure and damage to historic sites.
      Who’s right? I don’t know.

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  2. It’s sad how truth is lost in the ‘wars’ of narratives as well.

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    • Yes, because what we really want is to know both sides, including the one we don’t agree with.

      Liked by 1 person

      • No one really gives us that, even neutral observers for they do might highlight what they believe is right. Perhaps the only answer lies in reading multiple accounts.

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        • Yes, and it was Tolstoy who said that no one ever really knows what’s happening in a war. The generals are too far away to see what’s happening on the ground, and those on the ground are too far away to see the big picture.
          I think Hemingway says the same sort of thing in For Whom the Bell Tolls…

          Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s always a complicated matter, reporting on war, as Orwell among others have cogently said. Where ‘propaganda’ takes over from engaged narrative is a moot point: truth the first victim, etc. Sometimes a bit of polemic in the mix with reportage can be justifiable.

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  4. Thanks for the link, Lisa.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s Women in Translation month? I read three translations by women last week, just by chance, I had no idea!

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  6. This sounds like an important read. And the story behind the story of your reading it is just as interesting. It’s helpful to have discussions like this, to remind all of us to do our homework, to consider what is not being said, even while taking in what is being said.

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    • That’s true, because while I wouldn’t anyone to think that I’m an authority on anything, I still try to do my best to read between the lines.

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